Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues

Give him the chance and partyin' Charlie Musselwhite will break your heart

"If there is a sound that says 'Chicago Blues' to the world," Alligator Record's founder Bruce Iglauer once said, "it's the sound of a harmonica blown through a hand-held microphone blasting through an amplifier." Urban, gritty, roaring like the El over Wabash, blues harp is alive and well in the Nineties, despite the long reign of the guitar hero in the blues kingdom.

It's the sound of James Cotton, Billy Boy Arnold, Sugar Blue, all of whom have released excellent sides in the last year, as have harp-driven bands Little Charlie and the Nightcats (with and without John Hammond, a mean harpster himself), Satan and Adam, and the Nighthawks. Party music, to be sure. And then there's Charlie Musselwhite's latest, In My Time.

A solid collection that follows the artist's stylistic (and personal) journey up the Big Muddy A Mississippi, Memphis, Chicago A In My Time dredges deep Delta waters and throws down in fine Chicago form. And although most of these originals boogie along like an after-hours jam (you're not dubbed "Good Time Charlie" by Muddy Waters for depressing folks), that's not all it's about. On the opening three cuts, the man who built his rep with his mouth harp puts aside his Lee Oskar and picks up his Mudslide. Or Moonshine. As in guitar.

And the tunes A Musselwhite's own "Stingaree," Sleepy John Estes's "Brownsville Blues," and another original, "Ain't it Time," where he's subtly backed by the gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama A are stark, moody, evocative, beautiful. Not quite what one would expect, unless they've seen Musselwhite live in the past couple of years, where he has mesmerized A and probably confounded A more than a few fans by sitting down with a six-string.

"I recorded a few guitar tunes in the past, but it seemed to kind of slip by," Musselwhite says from a hotel in Houston, on the first leg of the tour that will bring him back to Tobacco Road tomorrow (Friday) night. "A lot of people never realized it was me. They assumed I was just singin' with a guitar player and not playin' the harp. But I've been playing since I was a kid." But you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a guitar picker in the late Fifties and early Sixties. So Musselwhite stuck with harmonica for the simple reason that it made finding work easier.

"I've always kinda been pickin' around on it at home or at some get-together," the Mussel man says. "And people would say, 'Yeah, you oughta do that on stage.' And I said, 'Naw, nobody wants to hear this old stuff' A 'cause it's that old style. I had always played these old beater guitars I'd get at junk stores, 'cause I couldn't afford to get an expensive one. So my wife said, 'Why don't you get yourself a good guitar? You can afford one now. Get one and have fun with it.' I did and I got talked into playin' it on stage, and my manager convinced me to record more tunes. And I'm havin' fun doin' it in person, too."

In contrast to his more grooving material A the Latin-propulsion of "When It Rains It Pours," the jazzy instrumental break-down "Watson's Excellent Adventure," the bluesy shuffle of "Midnight Mama" A Musselwhite's guitar forays owe more to his Delta roots than to his Chicago coming of age. "Because I focused so much on the harmonica," he explains, "I advanced further on that, where the guitar sort of leveled off at some point back there." Typical of the harpman's humility. When asked about his Handy Award nomination he disavows any knowledge. "For this year? Oh, I didn't know that." And you believe him.

Part of the credibility of Musselwhite's A and contemporaries John Hammond's and Bonnie Raitt's A sound and feeling can be attributed to his having learned directly from the masters of the past generation. He was just eighteen when he set out for the Windy City in 1962, with, legend has it, the law on his heels for running moonshine in backwoods Tennessee. One of the first heroes he met was the extraordinary guitarist Big Joe Williams, many years his senior. The two ended up gigging together, even sharing basement living quarters for a while. "We'd sit up all night talkin' and drinkin' and him tellin' me stories about all the people he had known, like Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. He was a good friend and a good teacher." And as for Big Joe's fabled nine-string, Musselwhite probably didn't spend too much practice time on it. "The strings were like cables. You could hardly press 'em down to the fretboard. They were just so tight and heavy. And he just played it like butter."

Another major influence on young Charlie was Big Walter "Shakey" Horton. Horton had learned from the same teacher as Musselwhite, the Memphis-based Will Shade. "He was also a big influence on Little Walter and Sonny Boy [Williamson]," Musselwhite says of Horton. "He was one of the first real harp players, aside from harp blowers. I used to go over to his house, and we'd sit around and drink and play, all hours of the night, ramble around Chicago."

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